The biggest passenger aircraft ever built, the double-decker Airbus A380, has successfully completed its maiden flight in one of the most eagerly awaited aviation debuts since the supersonic Concorde took off from the same runway in southern France in 1969. The super-jumbo's crew says there were no malfunctions during the flight and that everything went according to plan.
Thirty-thousand flight enthusiasts were on hand at the airport in the southwestern French city of Toulouse to cheer as the huge but quiet A-380 soared into the skies.
Four hours later, after a perfect landing, crew members like flight engineer Fernando Alonso gushed over the new plane's performance.
"The airplane is extremely comfortable, both in the cabin and in the cockpit itself, really, really comfortable," he said. "At the higher speeds, even with high lift configurations, there was very little buffeting. I sincerely believe that there is a hell of a lot of potential in this airplane, and, over the next few months, we'll get the best out of it."
French President Jacques Chirac was equally enthusiastic. He issued a statement saying that the test flight was what he called a magnificent result of European industrial cooperation. The plane was built by a consortium of French, German, British and Spanish investors.
Airbus is banking on the demand for giant planes offering cheaper seats between the world's major cities.
The A380 is designed to carry 555 passengers in three classes, but it can cram in as many as 800 seats.
Some experts say that major airports will be unable to accommodate such a huge plane. But Thomas Burger, Airbus' assistant marketing director, says that the aircraft was designed to minimize changes at the hubs it is supposed to serve.
"So, really, what we are talking about, are a few extensions on the runway and taxi-way and some minor terminal adaptations, which is a small proportion of the overall costs that they will invest over the next 20 years for normal growth," he explained.
The A380 is Airbus' key weapon in its battle to keep an edge over its American rival, Boeing, which is banking on customers wanting smaller long-range airliners flying between more airports. Michael Jenkins, the president of Boeing's British operations, says he is confident that his company's faster planes, which can seat up to 289 people, will be more popular with passengers.
"We do have doubts about whether the market really is there for a plane of this size, which is really why we have been focusing on the Dreamliner, or the 787, as it is now called, where we think the real growth in the market is going to be," he said. "That is to say, smaller airplanes, very long-range flying from one city to another, rather than to these large congested hubs, which is, of course, what the A380 will be serving."
Boeing now has 217 orders for the 787 compared to 154 for the A380 But the 787 will not be ready until 2008. The A380 is due to go into commercial service next year with Singapore Airlines, which plans to use it on flights to London's Heathrow airport and Sydney.
Singapore Airlines spokesman Stephen Forshaw says those routes need planes that can carry more people.
"It also needs capacity to be injected with larger aircraft because slots are very constrained at Heathrow," he said. "At the other end, in Sydney, there's a curfew, so we really need to use larger aircraft to continue to cater for growth in the market."
Besides Singapore Airlines, other firm customers for the super-jumbo are Air France, Lufthansa and several Arab and East Asian carriers. But Airbus' biggest challenge is to prove it can make a profit on its $15 billion investment in the plane, a third of which came from European governments. The price of each A380 is $282 million.